The Divided Dutch Antillean Writer and the Unifying Force of Translation

October 2016

Ranka e koi konjo aki foi di mi alma.
(Rip this motherfucker from my soul.)
—Frank Martinus Arion, “XIV”

The historical, cultural, and political dilemmas of the author from a former colony, forced to choose between writing in the language of colonization—corresponding quite often to a metropolis with a more developed publishing industry, and perhaps an international readership—or writing in the native tongue of the motherland: this has long been explored, unto absurdity, made into a running parody of itself. The polemics are often prone to self-righteousness and have been revived anew in debates with essentialism (again recalling Éduoard Glissant’s critique of essentialism versus creolité). Such debates pop up all across the spectrum of writers from former colonies and overseas departments.

The dilemma takes on an especially peculiar form, a source of haunting self-contradiction and self-isolation, for writers from Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire, islands faced with being deemed obsolete, arid places in the midst of resource-rich, postcolonial, and market-driven societies of the region. A bureaucratic negotiation (related to Dutch sales; literary grants and awards for writing in the Dutch language; cultural foundations; and the insecure condition of islands under the umbrella of a grumpy ex-colonizer) has often been struck between Papiamento and the Dutch language. Papiamento is the creole tongue of cultural and national reality of most islands of the former Dutch-Caribbean archipelago, where Dutch remains as the language of “sound colonial education.”

Dutch is still taught within the anachronistic Arubian school system, with little or no recognition of a potential future for speakers of Papiamento, should they read, teach, and learn in the national language. The dilemma of many populations that speak a marginalized or “endangered” language is that many of them stop stimulating education in the language because of hopelessness, because of the inability to foresee a future for their cherished tongue in an increasingly pragmatic, trade-driven world. (This is the case for Papiamento, despite its resemblances to Portuguese, one of the historical languages of transnational trade.)

Inhabitants of these islands, impressed by the engineering feats, affluence, and trade achievements of the Dutch, have seldom noticed that Dutch, within its context, is itself a minority language, isolated to a small, misunderstood corner of Europe whose inhabitants have insisted on learning other major languages of trade.

There was never a Goethe in the Netherlands preaching welt-literatur’ (universal literature) in national language. Unlike German, the Dutch language was unable to convincingly hoist itself into global literary history. The major intellectual and literary works written in the Netherlands are in Latin (Erasmus, Spinoza, Grotius); the most widely read and respected Dutch literary works were accidental, written by “outsiders’’ who did not intend to leave literary or philosophical artefacts: Vincent van Gogh’s private correspondence, Anne Frank’s childhood diaries.

Unlike other imperial languages of the Caribbean—French, Spanish, English—the Dutch language possesses no similar international audience, with the exception of Surinam (a country regarded as an enigma throughout the continent, linguistically isolated from Spanish-, Portuguese-, and Papiamento-speakers) and South Africa, with its distant relative of Dutch, Afrikaans. Therefore, there is no potential for liberation from borders and from provincial confines when the writer of the Antilles opts for Dutch.

For Haitian writer Jacques Roumain, using French helped transport the internationalist, epic message of third-world revolution. Karl Marx had expounded on how “history will increasingly become world-history” as the result of imperialism, industry, and colonialism: an oppressive, homogenizing globalism that would also globally interconnect the proletariat. The internationalism and Marxism subscribed to by Roumain, C. L. R.  James, Nicolás Guillén, and Aimé Césaire, and later by Frank Martinus Arion, hoped to make use of these dialectical forces of world history.

Such lines from Roumain’s ode “Sales nègres” (“Dirty Blacks”) as

quand on nous donnera l’ordre
de mitrailler nos frères Arabes
en Syrie
en Tunisie
au Maroc
et nos camarades blancs grévistes
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
pour empêcher dans les cottoneries de Louisiane1

were written to be read and even recited on radios and in bookshops in Algiers, Tunis, Senegal, Martinique, and New Orleans and in the Parisian metropolis and the resentful and oppressed provinces of the South of France. It worked for Sales nègres.

Antillean writers, such as Arion, attempted similar internationalism in Dutch. Though the resonance of third-world revolution in some ways took hold in Surinam, Curaçao, and Aruba, the mobilizing power of literature in the colonial tongue, Dutch, was severely limited in impact. Dutch is not cosmopolitan, and beyond Antwerp there is no Nederlandophonie anywhere in the many former Dutch colonies of the third world, except perhaps Surinam and enclaves of former settler colonies in South Africa. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Brazil’s Recife province, New York, Tasmania, and New Zealand are among former Dutch colonies, yet the language never achieved fecund cross-pollination in these lands. Perhaps the dormant, stillborn state of Dutch in those colonies resulted from the Dutch model of colonialism bearing little resemblance to the French. The impact of Dutch upon the mind and ear is irreconcilable with the tropics. The language remains unpopular to this day in Curaçao and Aruba, where it represents an alienating, defective school system and the dead jargon of bureaucracy.

Many Dutch Caribbean intellectuals welcomed a Luciferan bargain, a self-deception, that their choice of writing in Dutch was parallel to the internationalist hybridity of Roumain, Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and St-Jean Perse in French (or of their Spanish revolutionary counterparts, such as Guillén of Cuba and Luis Palés-Matos of Puerto Rico). Many Caribbean writers had chosen mastery of the universal and imperial languages in order to subvert them in favor of propelling internationalist struggle and reaching a worldly audience. But for an Antillean writer eschewing Papiamento in order to write in Dutch, such an internationalist posture proved a self-deception.

Arion, who studied Medieval Dutch at the University of Amsterdam, wrote Dutch poems taking a stand against apartheid, praising his oppressed distant Zulu relatives fighting for the African National Congress (to whom he donated the prize money he won for his 1973 novel Dubbel-spel [Dominoes]). In theory, Dutch verse could have been read aloud by Afrikaans speakers in South Africa. The prose of Surinamese writers in Dutch (such as that of Albert Helman, the author of The Quiet Plantation and of a breathtaking travelogue about Spain during the civil war) in theory could have been read by the miniscule fraction of native Indonesians who still read Dutch years after the independence war. In fact, however, there was no such audience. Unlike the Caribbean writers of French, Spanish, and English works that reach all parts of the third world—even the politically right-wing V. S. Naipaul is still widely read in India, and Guillén resonates in Latin America as far South as Argentina—the Antillean writers who opted for Dutch exited the language of their island for another penal colony of provincial confinement. The Antillean émigré writer who lives and publishes in the Netherlands participates in an illusion held by the Dutch about “their tropics”: it is as if he were not from an island where the newspapers, radio, daily conversation, political campaigns and parliament, local business transactions, and folk songs are in Papiamento (as they are). By writing in Dutch he denies being an aberration, reinforcing a mistaken metropolitan Dutch presumption about Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: the misconception that Dutch is the first and main language of the inhabitants (as is the case in Surinam). Dutch basic education promises some hope of an advantage for Arubians who wish to emigrate to study or work in the Netherlands; regional options for higher learning go neglected. The population is thereby divided.

The commonplace misconception in the Netherlands regarding the Dutch Antilles cannot then be entirely blamed upon a Dutch stubbornness, since Arubian and Curaçaoan writers such as Quito Nicolaas or Roland Colastica ultimately switched from Papiamento to Dutch for writing and publishing novels about the Antillean reality. Perhaps the situation of Dutch Antillean letters befits a comparison to Paul Celan’s torment, opting to write poems in German after the holocaust. The linguistic disparities, and the mystification of Papiamento, are partly inherent to the reasons why the Antillean diaspora in the Netherlands is more often working class, jobless, or police monitored, while the Surinamese (who spoke Dutch in Surinam, never Papiamento) are celebrated for their assimilation, eloquence, and middle-class ascendancy.

The important reasons for the Papiamento-literate author to still write in Dutch—as the maestro Arion himself often admitted—entail poverty, economic urgency, the possibility of being published in the Dutch market, hope of escaping the conservatism of Arubian and Curaçaoan society, and, most important, the chances of being read at all. A culture of antiliteracy and opposition to reading prevails still in Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire, possibly one of the oppositional reactions to an often anachronistic school system (such as that on Aruba, where my primary school had Dutch-language textbooks dating back to the 1950s, and where colonial education’s legacy never entirely ended, despite Arubian schoolteachers who enforce a dual consciousness about the language). Linguists such as Ramon Todd Dandaré of Aruba and Arion himself (most poets who wrote in Papiamento also happened to be linguists, defending the language on literary and scientific fronts) have argued that Dutch-language education in Aruba and Curaçao generated division between the language of daily usage and emotional expression and the language of cognition and abstraction, leading to a crisis in education. Using the terminology of linguists rather than of poets, the Papiamentistas (scholars of Papiamento) argue for bridging the gap in schooling that has stunted horizons for the young and prevented a flowering intellectual culture.

The persistence of a colonial-Dutch-language education that ignores Papiamento prevents a nascent postcolonial consciousness from finding sediment among the young generations who inhabit the self-governing, postcolonial colonies Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire.

Papiamento incorporates many languages and intercontinental intrigues; it resembles Afro-Portuguese and exhibits influences from the indigenous Arawak language, Ladino, Provençal French, and others. Papamiento yields immense cosmopolitan potential; it is a form of Desesperanto: the counterpart to Esperanto, which derives from the word for hope in Romance languages. The evolution of the Papiamento language charts major tragedies in history on three continents, combing African, indigenous, Provençal French, Judeo-Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch. It is a language born in the fecundity, of despairing journeys, and of seduction and subversion upon the pessimistic routes of international conflict. Papiamento surpasses Esperanto, the artificially constructed language meant for pacification and European diplomacy, a failed experiment between merchants.

Translations of intellectual/literary works and documents into Papiamento can enhance Papiamento and the struggle for a new postcolonial educational system in native language. Educational reform favoring national language is pivotal for the future. Links between the Antilles and the former metropole are deteriorating. In what has become a biannual electoral circus, Dutch politicians compete to score points with the Netherlands' voters by promising to block Antillean immigration to the Netherlands, while severing legal ties to the Antilles. It is one of the ominous signs that Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire might be better off consolidating relations with Brazil and other regional players in the future.

Translation is necessary to reunite the “ABC islands” with their neighbors and relatives and to end their condition of regional alienation without letting go their creole language. Translation, especially of poetry and intellectual works, into and from Papiamento can help the islands win against the deadly jargon of bureaucracies that render them back into the status originally designated for them by the first, Spanish colonizers’ maps: Islas inutiles, Useless Islands, an invalid condition that resonates in the way later, modern authorities continue to regard these islands, their language unrecognized and unrecognizable, alienated.

My contribution to this much-needed translation movement begins with translations of Papiamento and Dutch poems by Arion, who I had the honor of meeting in Aruba and again in Curaçao, with his wife, Trudy Guda, when he was still in good health. Though more appraised for his novels, Arion transmits his strongest abilities (neoromantic verve, a knightly masculinity, musicality, and humor) in verse. Arion and other bards of Papiamento need to be appreciated in the anglophone and francophone Caribbean—just as Derek Walcott, Perse, Roumain, and Césaire need to be honored in Papiamento translation.

Read poems by Frank Martinus Arion, translated by Arturo Desimone.


Arturo Desimone, Arubian-Argentinian writer and visual artist, was born and raised on the island Aruba. At 22, he migrated to the Netherlands. He is currently based between Argentina and the Netherlands while working on a long fiction project about childhoods, diasporas, islands and religion. Desimone’s articles, poetry and short fiction pieces have previously appeared in CounterPunchCírculo de Poesía, Acentos ReviewDemocraciaAbierta, and BIM; he also writes a regular column for the Drunken Boat poetry review, titled ''Notes on a Journey to the Ever-Dying Lands''


1 “When they shall give us the order, / the machine-gun our Arab brothers / in Syria / in Tunisia / in Morocco / and our white comrades, the striking labourers /. . . // . . . / to stifle those in the Louisiana cotton-plantations”; Jacques Roumain, “Sales nègres,” Bois d’ébène (Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie Henri Deschamps, 1945); translation mine.


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